BACKGROUND: The 1972 Pirates displayed few, if any, symptoms of a post-championship hangover. Seamlessly transitioning field leadership from Danny Murtaugh to Bill Virdon, shaking off a two-week strike that would reduce their schedule to 155 games, and overcoming Roberto Clemente's struggles with health and Bob Robertson's struggles with hitting, the Bucs racked up an astonishing 83-38 record between May 6 and September 14. The Buccos never vacated first place in the NL East after June 19, secured their third consecutive division title with 11 games to play ("But it was far from an orgy," observed The Pittsburgh Press' Bob Smizik of the division-clinching celebration), and finished with a 96-59 record and the franchise's highest winning percentage of any season between 1926 and 2015.
Inside the Bucs' clubhouse, camaraderie reigned. Willie Stargell remembered his 1972 teammates fondly in his autobiography:
We loved being around each other. We were more than teammates—we were friends and that's what mattered most. There wasn't any jealousy. Every player pulled for his teammates no matter what his position with the team was. That's what made being a Bucco so much fun. You get ten of the best racehorses in the world, but if five go one way and five go the other way, what kind of race do you have? We were all going in the same direction. Each one of us had an accepted role. We were never envious of a teammate. We simply played our part. If someone on the team was injured and couldn't do his job, there was always someone waiting in the wings who could. Such a feeling does plenty for a team's confidence.
We liked the idea that we struck fear into the hearts of our opponents. We felt respected when we were booed in an opposing city. We saw the fans' boos as a sign of respect.
And we never allowed each other to get depressed. If we fell into a losing streak, we played even harder, laughed louder and tried to enjoy ourselves even more. A team party often served as a cure-all for a losing streak. Such an event gave us the opportunity to forget our worries and regain our confidence. We never let ourselves get down.
A second consecutive World Series berth, however, would have to be earned. The Pirates' reward for their dominant regular season was a National League Championship Series date with a Cincinnati Reds team with an election-year landslide of their own. Sparky Anderson's squad's 95-59 mark left them just half a game behind the Bucs for the game's best record; their 10.5-game advantage in the NL West similarly fell just half a game shy the Buccos' divisional margin.
After sweeping the Pirates in the NLCS and losing the World Series to the Orioles in 1970, Cincinnati finished only 79-83 in 1971. But the Reds had reloaded through one of the greatest instances of selling high and obtaining an undervalued talent in major league history. While fans and scribes alike maligned the November 1971 deal sending a package of players highlighted by first baseman Lee May (coming off a 39-homer season at age 28) to Houston for a package led by second baseman Joe Morgan (whose .256 batting average in a pitchers' park masked a wide spectrum of skills), the trade added one of the decade's greatest all-around talents to an already star-studded attack. Morgan joined Johnny Bench (who notched his second MVP award at age 24), Pete Rose, and Tony Perez in a deep lineup.
The Reds had beaten the Pirates eight times in 12 regular-season games, with Morgan battering Bucs' hurlers at a .370/.482/.696 pace. Anticipation of the NLCS ran high: William Leggett of Sports Illustrated observed that "none of the previous six championship series had the quality this one promises." Al Abrams of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that the "wagering odds" slightly favored the Pirates and opined that "[i]t should be some kind of series."
Between 1969 and 1984, best-of-five League Championship Series determined World Series contestants, with the divisions alternating whose winner would host the first two games and whose winner would host the final three. The 1972 NLCS schedule would open with Saturday and Sunday afternoon games at Three Rivers Stadium, and then move to Riverfront Stadium for three consecutive day games. For the opener, Virdon called on Steve Blass, his best starter with 19 wins and a 2.49 ERA. Anderson responded with lefty Don Gullett, who had earned two saves in the 1970 NLCS as a teenager. Gullett was one of the few Reds who had been more successful in 1971 than 1972; he had followed a 16-6 mark with a hepatitis-plagued 9-10 campaign.
ACTION: A crowd of 50,241, just above Three Rivers Stadium's capacity, turned out on a chilly, windy day, with the Tartan Turf still wet from a recent rain. They saw the Reds jump in front two batters into the game, when Morgan connected with a Blass fastball and pulled it over the right field wall for a 1-0 lead.
Morgan's initial burst of negative feedback persuaded Blass to forgo his fastball in favor of the slower aspects of his pitching repertoire. The Reds would put runners on base in every subsequent inning, but they would not reach home plate again.
To balance a lineup relying on several left-handed hitters, Virdon deployed right-handed batter Rennie Stennett at leadoff. The 21-year-old Panamanian started the bottom of the first with a single up the middle; he moved to second base on a Bench passed ball.
Lefty-swinging Al Oliver followed by lining a Gullett breaking ball to center for an RBI triple. One out later, Stargell, who finished the season in a 4-for-44 slump, appeared to be jammed by a Gullett offering, but muscled the ball high off the right-field wall for a double, scoring Oliver. Richie Hebner's two-out liner to right, the Pirates' third big hit of the inning by a left-handed batter, then drove in Stargell for a 3-1 lead.
Gullett recovered by setting down 12 Pirates in a row. In the bottom of the fifth, however, the Stennett-Oliver duo would extend the Bucco advantage. Stennett bounced a two-out chopper over third for a single. Oliver then connected on a two-run homer over the 385-foot sign in right center, increasing the margin to 5-1.
By that point, Anderson had been banished from the Reds' dugout, ejected in the fourth inning after arguing that Cesar Geronimo's line drive had struck the hip of umpire Ken Burkhart in fair territory. The Reds put two runners on base to start the sixth, but Blass retired Perez, Dennis Menke, and Geronimo to maintain the lead. An inning later, two more Reds reached with two outs, but second baseman Dave Cash tracked down Bobby Tolan's bouncer and threw to Blass covering first to end the threat.
Blass's off-speed journey carried him one out deep in the ninth inning, but pinch hitter Joe Hague singled and Rose walked. When Blass threw two balls to Morgan, Virdon summoned lefty Ramon Hernandez to close out the game.
Morgan hit Hernandez's first pitch to Oliver in center for the second out. Hernandez then struck out Tolan on four pitches to give the Pirates a 1-0 advantage in the best-of-five series.
Jack Billingham will pitch for Cincinnati today. That's the Jack Billingham who pitches with his right arm.
Cincinnati found out by the rather hazardous means of trial and error yesterday that left-handed pitching is not necessarily the best way to stop the Pirates. Don Gullett, who had only a 9-10 record in the regular season, started yesterday as the Reds worked with the belief that left-handed pitching is the best way to stop the Pirates' big left-handed hitters.
The belief was proven absurdly incorrect. Al Oliver, Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner, each a left-handed hitter, drove in all the runs and had four of the six hits as the Pirates defeated Cincinnati, 5-1, at Three Rivers Stadium in the first game of the best of five series to determine the National League champion.
- Bob Smizik, The Pittsburgh Press
Aside from providing a passport to the World Series, an eye-popping paycheck for the players and a shot of excitement for dyed-in-the-wool baseball fans of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the National League playoffs are proving nothing to Sparky Anderson, the wiry, husky-voiced pilot of the Reds.
They certainly will not establish whether the Pirates or the Reds are the better team says Sparky.
"If we win, I'm not going to say we're a better team than the Pirates," said Anderson, his coatless shoulders slouched against the wall in a rollback chair. "If the Pirates win, I'm sure they won't say they're a better team than us."
It requires more than a five-game series, or even the longer World Series, to establish the unquestionable merits of a baseball team, Anderson seemed to be saying. A 160-game series might decide it.
- Pat Livingston, The Pittsburgh Press
I went out to pitch Game 1, and the second batter I faced was Joe Morgan. I had two fastballs in my repertoire, a sinking fastball and a riding fastball. I threw Morgan a sinking fastball down and away, and he turned it back around and hit a home run to right-center. After he pulled my fastball like that I said to myself, Oh s**t. Is this what they're going to do with my fastball today? So for the next seven-plus innings, they probably saw about five fastballs. What they mostly saw the rest of the way from me was a variety of sliders and slop-s**t, change-ups and curveballs, to the point where Rose was hollering out of their dugout, "Eat a f*****g steak. Throw the ball like a man." That game was a good example of my ability to adapt to a good fastball-hitting team.
- Steve Blass, A Pirate for Life (with Erik Sherman)
AFTERMATH: On Sunday afternoon, the Reds again struck first, but this time more decisively. Five consecutive hits to start the game drove Bob Moose from the mound and gave Cincinnati a 4-0 advantage. The Bucs chipped their way back into the game behind Bob Johnson's five scoreless innings of relief, but the Reds parlayed Tom Hall's left-handed long relief and Morgan's eighth-inning insurance home run off Hernandez for a series-tying 5-3 win.